After the story of Paul in Corinth in Acts 18 we have an interesting section from 18:18-19:20 where there is evidence of a lot of things happening. What we see in this section is that far more is happening than Luke can describe in his account. The world is large, there are lots of people with their own ideas, they come into contact and things are happening. This isn’t Paul master-minding the operation. He’s one player. The Holy Spirit is doing work, and the work is messy.
Paul leaves Corinth with Priscilla and Aquila, gets a religious hair cut, leaves them in Ephesus, the most important city in the Roman province of Asia. He meets with the people in the synagogue and the reception is positive. He moves on to Caesarea, Jerusalem, Antioch, and then visits the churches again in Galatia and Phrygia.
Next we get introduced to Apollos a native of Alexandria, one of the most important cities in the Empire. His reputation is interesting. On one hand he had learned something about Jesus and was an impressive speaker, apologist and evangelist but at the same time “knew only the baptism of John”. In Ephesus he meets Priscilla and Aquila and apparently he’s teachable too and he is able to learn from them. He then goes back over to Greece (Corinth and Athens) where Paul had just been, was well received and worked profitably there.
A peculiar thing is that there is no mention of Apollos being re-baptized by Priscilla and Aquila. Witherington also notes here that there is no mention of any of Jesus’ apostles receiving Christian baptism. We assume they were baptized by Jesus (see John 3:22) but that in the passage in John was similar to John’s baptism. Were they baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28)? Seems unlikely. So right away we have some interesting questions about a deficient evangelist who is brought up to spec, baptism, John and what it means.
If you recall for some strange reasons God didn’t want Paul ministering in Ephesus before, and on the return leg of the second missionary journey only had time there for a brief stop, Paul now returns to Ephesus and “found disciples there.” This is a little strange because on one hand we assume there were Christians there because Priscilla and Aquila and Apollos were all just in Ephesus. That isn’t, however, who is being talked about.
Paul runs into twelve “disciples” who are disciples of John but Luke calls them “disciples” as if they were Christians. With a bit of work Paul assess them as John disciples, with no knowledge of the Holy Spirit, judges them to be deficient, instructs them, rebaptizes them (the only instance of re-baptism in the Bible) and they manifest signs of what would be regarded as evidence for the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Now it’s easy to slap our template on this text if we keep in isolation from other texts. It’s fascinating to compare this to Acts 10 where the Spirit comes upon Cornelius and then they are baptized into Jesus’ name. In the book we have plenty of accounts of receive the Spirit without baptism being mentioned, people becoming Christians without these manifestations.
If you read the rest of Paul’s letters you’ll see plenty of deficient belief, bad theology, deficient practice, and the like among the churches. There are lots of people running around teaching things and going things, some will be accepted, some will be tweaked, others will be completely condemned. In short, it’s a mess.
Tempted to Syncretistic Relativism
When we see this holy mess it is easy to begin to default to more fuzzy ideas of nice and good and to start imagining that none of this makes any difference. Baptize this, accept that, do this, it’ doesn’t matter. The city of Ephesus was in fact known for this. It was a very “spiritual” city and an important center for magic and religious practice in the Empire.
The next story in the run wants to let us know that the process of God’s missionary movement is messy, but it is not without gravity and other realities.
This is one of Paul’s most fruitful ministry periods in his life. He stays in Ephesus for three years and the account of his time there is astounding. Again, Luke is lining up the Jesus/Peter/Paul accounts and tells of miraculous healings and deliverances taking place during Paul’s time there. After getting kicked out of the synagogue he’s lecturing in a public hall giving us the sense that people of various levels are being engaged by his ministry. both popular religion through the healings and more philosophical religion through the lectures.
It also appears that there was a degree of syncretism among the Jews there and they were assimilating into the broader culture of popular religion. They were picking up Paul’s popularity and decided to emulate it. What happened scared and shocked the broader community.
A Personal Universe
At the heart of our impulse, either through philosophy, science or common religion, to become masters of the universe is the assumption and/or assertion that the center of the universe is up for grabs. The administration of the universe is mechanistic, not personal, and if we can figure out the system we can make it work for us.
There’s clearly a lot of messiness in the process of evangelizing the world and it is filled with all sorts of confusion and error. We’ve got rituals all over the place, theologies that are always getting worked on, tweaked, reformed, taught. We’ve got all this work to do and we want to imagine that either “anything goes, none of it matters” or “there’s a system beneath the chaos that if we can figure it out, work it, manipulate it, THEN we can have it work for us.”
What happens in the beating of the seven sons of Sceva is a reminder that we are small in the universe, both physically and spiritually, that there is order to the universe, both physically and spiritually, and that we are not at its center.
This incident became one of those defining moments, similar to Ananias and Sapphira. It reminds me of CS Lewis’ critique of pantheism. It there messiness? Yes. Is God tolerant of our weakness and patient with our faltering steps and words? Yes. Does anything go? No, especially among the evil.